As a set-up, that's not half-bad. Initially, Octavio Solis' new musical "Cloudlands," now in its world premiere on South Coast Repertory's Julianne Argyros Stage, seems a straightforward drama about adolescent alienation, parental failings and the yearning for home -- not as the flawed and loveless surroundings of the troubled teen protagonist, but as an idealized haven in an inimical world.
At first, it's all very simple and simply rendered, not at all to a fault. We are quite happy with the poignant portrait director Amanda Dehnert and her excellent cast compose. But just as we are settling in for an intimate chamber musical, we realize that Solis and composer Adam Gwon, who co-wrote the lyrics with Solis, are after far bigger game.
Both Solis and Gwon are firmly established theatrical veterans who met in a musical theater workshop several years ago and subsequently joined forces on this show, a commissioned work for South Coast Repertory. Gwon has his roots in the musical theater, but for Solis, the musical form is a bit of a departure. Despite a few lapses into overwrought lyrics, theirs is a collaboration made in heaven that builds inexorably to tragedy, leaving us absolutely gobsmacked in its aftermath.
Christopher Acebo's stark white set serves as a gesso canvas for Lap Chi Chu's virtuosic lighting design, swirling with the pastel-infused clouds that are a central conceit of the show. Drew Dalzell's unobtrusive sound design is also excellent, although costume designer Alex Jaeger might want to rethink those unnecessarily sky-high heels on a central character.
Bruce Coughlin contributes the tuneful orchestrations, Dennis Castellano, who also helms the live orchestra, deserves high praise for his sterling musical direction. Under his tutelage, the performers soar and shine.
The linchpin of the cast is youthful Addi McDaniel as Monica, the disaffected girl whose fateful inquisitiveness spurs the plot. A dynamo with a brass-plated voice, McDaniel stands her ground with superb veteran performers Katrina Lenk and Robert Mammana, who play Monica's estranged parents, and steamily attractive Joseph Melendez as Victor, the mysterious man who unbalances Monica's fragile domestic microcosm. Adam Kaokept rounds out the cast as Monica's boyfriend, who learns a shocking secret he is desperate to conceal.
There are no saints and no villains here, only well-meaning people undone by a culture of silence – the hubris behind this Greek unraveling. For Victor, an illegal immigrant with a torturous past, the longing for home is a dream long-deferred, expressed in one of the most heart-rending songs of the show. Yet “Cloudlands” transcends cultural concerns in favor of universal verities. The result is nothing short of a triumph for all concerned with this extraordinary new work.
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"Cloudlands." South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends May 6. $20 to $68; (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes